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A 'brilliant' May Day parade exposes tourists to St. Louis's racial complexities

Diva sweat girls perform at the 2016 Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center's annual May Day Parade.
Wiley Price | St. Louis American

It was clear that John and Carol Hampson had never seen anything like the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center’s annual May Day Parade as it passed through downtown on Sunday, May 15.

Their eyes beamed with wonder as the British tourists used words like “brilliant” and “quite lovely” – and sometimes “quite brilliant” – to sum up their thoughts as the parade proceeded down Market Street.

“Oh, look at the wee one,” Carol said, as one of the tiny members of the Diva Sweat Girls commenced to thrust with the force of her whole body as the beat dropped during their moment in the spotlight.

It was a “lovely bit of fate” that allowed them to be amongst the festivities.

Carol had always wanted to see the Mississippi River, so the couple took two days out of their “holiday” for a quick jaunt to St. Louis after leaving New York on their way to Las Vegas.

Before they headed for the mighty Mississippi they decided to see what all the commotion was before they made their rounds on a downtown tourist walk. Three hours later they still stood near 14th and Market streets, too delightfully fixated on another celebrated St. Louis feature to even consider leaving.

They asked a nearby police officer about the “nature of the parade.” He told them that it happens around this time every year. The look on their faces hinted at dissatisfaction with his answer.  Anyone who has experienced being the lone representative in a sea of “other” would have easily picked up on what they were feeling. 

“It’s a historically black parade,” I leaned in to tell them.

“Oh my,” Carol said. “Should we leave? We don’t want to be offensive if this is a sacred experience.”

“It’s not like that at all,” I reassured her. “It’s just something that was created and maintained by black people, but everyone is welcome to attend.”

They both breathed a sigh of relief. Then a new sort of confusion set in.

“Well, where are all of the white people?” John whispered.

“It’s complicated,” I replied. “But the short answer is that we do a lot of things amongst ourselves in St. Louis.”

They both looked shocked.

“We thought that sort of thing was over a long time ago,” John blurted out. “So is it the white people that don’t want to be here, or is it the other way around?”

They never uttered the word “black.” They said that saying “black” in reference to a person’s ethnicity would get you instantly branded a racist in the U.K.

John and Carol Hampson enjoyed a "lovely bit of fate" when they happened across the May Day Parade during a visit to St. Louis from the U.K.
Credit Kenya Vaughn | St. Louis American
John and Carol Hampson enjoyed a "lovely bit of fate" when they happened across the May Day Parade during a visit to St. Louis from the U.K.

“I can’t speak for white people — but have you felt unwelcomed at all?” I asked.

“No, quite the opposite,” Carol chimed in.

They asked about why they saw white people in the parade — but not at the parade. They inquired about the political messages and campaign efforts they saw. “Are there separate governments?” John asked.

“No, but they, I mean, we, typically vote the same way,” I said. “And the black vote is an important one to have — especially when it comes to local politics.”

The questions shot out from them almost at the same pace as the groups that marched down the long stretch.

“Is it like this at schools? Do you shop together? How do people feel about living like this?”

“We must sound a bit silly, but this is all so fascinating,” Carol said.

Their enjoyment brought more observations about how talented the children were and how much stamina it must take for them to dance their way down so many blocks.

I watched the Hampsons soak in every moment of something we have come to take for granted over the years with the May Day Parade. Through them it felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

We watched together as the Normandy High School Band made the streets shake with the thunder of their drumline — and as Carr Lane VPA Middle School’s full-scale band, drumline, color guard and dancers clocked nearly every performance.

“Those tiny ones are quite good,” Carol said of Carr Lane and Diva Sweat Girls — a group of toddlers and young girls who could hold their own against just about any Historically Black College and University dance line.

As the Hampsons and I parted ways, I left feeling proud of the memory of St. Louis the May Day Parade must have given them and the stories they will share — even if it exposed the poorly kept secret about our city’s segregation.

But as far as the parade itself goes, it was all “quite brilliant” — every bit of it. 

The Annie Malone May Day Parade began more a century ago, when thousands of St. Louisans would gather to honor Annie Malone, the founder of Poro College and the children’s home that carries her name.

Kenya Vaughn is a writer for the St. Louis American

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